Cheeseburgers and Ikea bags

It’s dark the way only an October night in England can be, and raining a baptism. I’m walking home from Mrs M’s, reflecting on the fragility of life. In truth, I’ve believed Mrs M to be immortal until now, but she’s 92 and so frail it’s taken two of us to get her into bed tonight.  My faith is beginning to waver.  I don’t yet know the day when I’ll hold her hand while she fights her last battle is less than eight weeks away, but there’s a sense of finality.

When I first ducked into the downpour, I hoped it might wash away the stench of mortality.  Now I’m wishing I’d accepted the offer of a taxi. I’m weary, soaked to the bone, and I’m the only living creature on the street.  Even the foxes are in their holes. There are no low-slung shadows sliding between the pools of light around the street lamps tonight.  The avenue stretches unbending before me into endless rain.  Then out of nowhere there’s a car behind me.  It’s moving too fast.  It hurtles along the avenue, flies over a speed hump and throws up a wall of water that hits me full in the small of the back. Howls of laughter trail in its wake as it accelerates away.

If there’s no peculiar corner of hell for people who do things like that, I’m up for the construction job.  They’ll be able to rot there for all eternity, with squelching shoes and knickers full of icy mud, while an infinite quantity of rain flushes out their rage and humiliation.  Come to think of it, they can share their cosy corner with the man who allowed someone I love to pay his rent during his teacher training, then walked out and left her the day the course ended.  But that’s another story.

In a life long gone, I open my eyes on a blur of grey and surgical green.  A voice is telling me something I already know.

She’s gone. There was nothing they could do.

They seem shocked by what’s happened to you.  I try to reassure them it’s just as I knew it would be.  I realised from the start you were too good to be true.  I drift through consciousness, my heart so broken there’s no point in recriminations or tears.  The scene changes and someone brings you to me.  Your mouth’s just a little bruised, and you’re wearing the wrong clothes.  Your head feels cool against my lips as I kiss you goodbye.  Later they’ll tell me there was peace in the room that night, and we’ll take that to have been the presence of God.  Perhaps it was no more than silent despair.  You mustn’t blame God someone says, a week or so after you’ve gone. So who else am I to blame, I ask. Who else was it turned your umbilical cord into a noose? And twenty years later, who else was I to blame for the pointless accident that took your cousin’s life on the road out of Belfast Airport?  

I’m not so magnanimous as my brother. It took him less than five years publicly to forgive the boy whose simple inexperience ended one life and indelibly stamped so many others with sorrow.  It’s almost fifteen before I’m able to forgive you for leaving me, or even to admit that’s what I need to do.  As I’m choking out the words at last, you grow in my mind’s eye from a beautiful, bruise-lipped baby into a lithe-limbed teenager with brown hair and a soft smile, and I know I’ve set you free.

The woman at the bus stop hasn’t set anyone free.  I’m tempted to duck through the Bearpit to the other stop when I see her on the bench, surrounded by bags, but I’m afraid I’ll miss the bus.  She’s on her feet before I’m half across the road.  Her eyes, marbled and grey-green as the sea, search my face for inappropriate responses.

I’ve called the police on the lot of them … I hope you know it wasn’t me …

I don’t know the story, but I can recite the script.  This lady lugs her pain daily in two supermarket carriers and a blue Ikea bag.  It’s tempting to laugh, but I’ve seen myself reflected in her unshed tears once too often, and I’ve tried lifting that Ikea bag.  She’s ten years older than me.  I can barely get it off the ground, yet she carries it with her everywhere she goes.  

I’m not sure what I’d do with pain as vast as that.  Maybe I’d stuff it into bags and drag it with me too, or perhaps I’d drown it, like the man in Old Market on Sunday morning.  I know nothing about him, save that he has an empty White Ace bottle for a pillow and a swarm of flies on his trousers.  I’m not even sure he’s alive.  My companion and I hesitate.  The flies hover.  The scene is cruel and compelling, and neither of us wants to pass by on the other side.  After what seems an age, the buzzing of the flies at his face penetrates his stupor and he twitches to shake them off.

It’s OK, I say, He moved.

Are you sure?

Yes.  Absolutely positive 

All the same, I can’t shake him off so easily.  Something about him puts me in mind of Charlie in the final three-bottles-of-vodka-and-a-sweat-stained-brown-T-shirt-he-wore-for-six-months days.  We’re halfway through our bacon sarnies when I realise I’ll have to go back, just to be sure he really is alive.  We’re still a yard or two off when a young man in glasses squats down by him and holds out a cheeseburger.  Charlie-not-Charlie takes and unwraps it on the urine-stained pavement without sitting up.  The young man draws level with us.  He seems bemused by my half-smile.  After all he has no way to know there’s a world in my head where his cheeseburger kick-started a miracle, just as there is in his.

Pain’s a companion nobody wants and everyone finds hard to let go.  An old friend and I used to argue endlessly about forgiveness.  No, she’d say, it’s too easy.  It’s just letting people off the hook.  Now I’m older and wiser, I have to agree, although it’s too late to tell her.  I’ve seen forgiveness sold like snake oil.  An airy wave of the hand, a no-it’s-all-right-really-it-is, and another item gets stuffed into the Ikea bag.  Out of sight but still in mind, and biding its time.

I don’t understand all this stuff about Jesus being crucifie

I glance at my companion over the rim of my teacup.  I’m not sure I understand as well as I used to think I did. The thought’s forming that a God prepared to take that kind of shit isn’t looking at forgiveness that’s accomplished by a wave of the hand.  Instead, it’s a painful road.  It’s a real and long-drawn-out process of letting go, and oddly this gives me hope.  If I’m right, then there’s still time for the bag ladies and the Charlie-not-Charlies, because it’s never too late. If I’m right, the day may come when I’ll be able forgive even those bastards in the car, then maybe I won’t have to construct my own private corner in hell after all.

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